6 February, 1960
Who was Stevie Wonder’s all-time favourite artist? “Jesse Belvin,” he said in 1976, naming Belvin’s Mr. Easy as a must-have album. “I would almost die to meet him. I really loved the music he gave us. There is so much sincerity in his voice.”
Just 27-years-old when he died, on the brink of super- stardom, Texas-born, LA-raised Belvin had been dubbed a “sepia Sinatra” – destined to be bigger than Sam Cooke – Nat Cole even. Etta James considered him a legend, writing in her autobiography, “when he peered into your eyes, you melted. This was when every guy, black or white, wanted to be as cool as James Dean. But Jesse, well, he was beyond cool”
He was also a talented songwriter. In 1954 he’d penned parts of the big-selling Earth Angel for The Penguins, one of the outstanding R&B records of all time. “He was always writing,” said bootin’ sax star Big Jay McNeely, with whom Belvin hung out in Watts. “He could sit down and write a tune in five minutes. And then he gave them away. We really didn’t know anything about publishing in those days.”
“Jesse was beyond cool.”
Not that Jesse cared. Guitarist René Hall, who arranged some of Sam Cooke’s best-known recordings observed: “All he wanted to do was to have some cash in his pocket and have a good time.”
Belvin recorded anything for everybody, often working under such pseudonyms as The Gassers, The Shields and The Cliques, also finding solo R&B chart success. Along the way he cut a number of sides for producer and promoter John Dolphin, owner of LA’s 24-hour Central Avenue record store Dolphin’s Of Hollywood, where he met Jo Ann Johnson, later to be his wife. A smart operator and songwriter, she reshaped Jesse’s life and encouraged his develop- ment. Having signed a major label contract with RCA, in April 1959 his single Guess Who hit Number 31 on the Billboard Hot 100. The song’s polished parent album Just Jesse Belvin showed serious crossover potential.
Less than a year later, just six weeks into 1960, Belvin was due at the Joseph T. Robinson Memorial Auditorium in Little Rock, Arkansas, part of a package headed by Jackie Wilson and featuring Arthur Prysock, Marv Johnson, Bobby Freeman, Baby Washington, Nappy Brown, Sam Cooke, Bobby Lewis and Willis Jackson’s Orchestra. It was a ground- breaker, said to be the city’s first ever non-segregated concert in an area that, like neighbouring Memphis, was still racially divided.
Death Threats And Tyres Slashed...
The ads hailed the event as “The first rock and roll show of 1960.” Yet some were determined to stop it. Death threats were received by Belvin and others, and the atmosphere was filled with menace. The singer, who rarely phoned home, called his mother twice to discuss his fears. When the performance eventually got underway, it was halted on more than one occasion, with one white supremacist protestor demanding all white teenagers quit the building. It was feared that there’d be a repeat of the trouble at Nat Cole’s April 1956 performance in Birmingham, Alabama, where the singer was attacked on-stage by six boneheaded assailants. At Little Rock, however, the show played out until its high octane conclusion.
Afterwards, the various performers left town, though Prysock’s Lincoln Continental and Wilson’s 1960 Cadillac had had their tyres slashed. Jesse and Jo Ann headed for Dallas, but, five miles south of Hope, Arkansas, their ’59 Caddy suddenly swerved into another lane at 85 mph, crashing into an oncoming car driven by one Max Nohl of Milwaukee.
The LA Sentinel reported on investigations into whether Belvin’s tyres had been slashed too; another theory was that the singer’s driver, Charles Ford, who had once worked for Ray Charles, had been drinking (Ray fired him because, according to Etta James, Ford “liked to party a little too much”). Another motorist had noticed that Ford was straying into the oncoming lane and flashed their lights to alert him.
Belvin and his driver, plus Max Nohl and his wife, were killed instantly. Jo Ann died later in hospital. At Belvin’s funeral, where Jackie Wilson sang in tribute, Etta James remembered, “It took three days to sew Jesse back together… [Jackie] was so broken up he could hardly make a sound.”
In the wake of his death, RCA released his already-scheduled second album. Entitled Mr. Easy, it was a remarkable release, with Belvin’s Cole-esque but uniquely phrased vocals clad in a series of superb Marty Paich arrangements. One of many eminent admirers, Lou Rawls argued, simply: “It’s gotta be the greatest jazz pop LP ever made.”